"Showtime" offers two tremendous comic actors in roles that are nearly perfect for them, but also the most poorly thought-out title in years. Perhaps the confusion the title inspired among moviegoers -- who should at least be thankful Warner Bros. didn't name it "HBO" or "To Be Announced" -- caused it to earn only $38 million in theatres, despite an $85 million budget.
Almost as generic as the movie's title is its premise, though that doesn't mean it's a bad one. De Niro plays a grumpy old detective forced to star in a ludicrous reality TV show alongside Eddie Murphy's showbiz-obsessed young (?) patrolman. De Niro, of course, can't stand Murphy. Nor can he stomach William Shatner (playing himself hilariously), whom the pushy producer (Rene Russo of "The Thomas Crown Affair") hires to teach them how to act like "T.J. Hooker"-style TV cops.
Ultimately, though, taciturn De Niro and talkative Murphy must overcome their differences to chase down a gang selling an enormous gun that fires 12-gauge, armor-piercing, depleted-uranium shells (with a lack of recoil that defies Newton's 3rd Law of Motion).
"Showtime" is intentionally reminiscent of perhaps a dozen other odd-couple buddy movies, including Murphy's "48 Hours," Russo's "Lethal Weapon" series, and De Niro's "15 Minutes" and "Midnight Run."
The buddy cop film is one of the Hollywood's more inspired inventions. Ever since 1967's "In the Heat of the Night," the genre has provided a non-sappy way to show blacks and whites learning to trust each other.
Still, after 30 years the style seemed about tapped out. Then it unexpectedly showed its durability in "Rush Hour," when it was used to finally solve Hollywood's Jackie Chan Problem: What do you do with a performer of genius who can't exactly speak English? You team his endearing inarticulateness with motor mouth Americans like Chris Tucker, or with Owen Wilson in Tom Dey's "Shanghai Noon." Dey was then hired to do the same for "Showtime."
Originally, "Showtime" was conceived as an action movie for Keanu Reeves and Chris Rock. Clearly, De Niro and Murphy are far superior actors, but the movie would have been better if it had been designed for the two old pros in the first place.
You can see the confusion besetting "Showtime" -- is it an action film or a character-driven comedy? -- by comparing its television ad to its theatrical trailer.
The TV spot -- all bang-bang boom-boom and unfunny one-second shots of the stars -- is aimed at the excitable young males who would have flocked to see Reeves and Rock. In contrast, the more leisurely movie house preview gives fans of the middle-aged cast (the average age of the four stars is 54) enough time to luxuriate in their expert comic interplay.
Indeed, much of the comedy stems from De Niro's determination to avoid action. He's perfectly aware that he's too old and fat to imitate Shatner's painful-looking demonstrations of how to bust down doors and roll across car hoods in the time-honored TV cop manner.
Some of the action set pieces are mildly clever. Dey stages a shootout in a TV repair shop in order to symbolize our media-saturated modern life, but also because it's fun to watch a lot of picture tubes explode.
The biggest laughs come, not surprisingly, when Dey simply lets the camera roll as Murphy rattles on about his acting ambitions while a glowering De Niro's fuse burns. Yet, the movie can be irritating due to the kind of technical failures you rarely see anymore.
Even the acting seems shaky. Murphy is very funny, and De Niro is hilarious in his reaction shots. But when the great man opens his mouth, something seems a little off. And Russo is unaccountably amateurish-sounding, like a cable-access actress. Maybe there was something wrong with the print I saw. It almost seemed as if the sound wasn't in sync with the flapping of the lips.
Perhaps it's just that the film editing is atrocious. To the average Oscar voter, editing is the most revered if least understood of all the film crafts. They assume, quite reasonably, that if a movie seemed good overall, it had to be well edited. Thus, for the last 20 years, every Best Picture winner was at least nominated for Best Editing. "Showtime," however, is that rarity -- a big budget movie where you can't help second-guessing the cuts while you are watching.
A rumor on the Web -- for whatever it's worth -- might explain the chaotic editing. Supposedly, the film was severely recut after Sept. 11 to make it less violent and more comic. But why didn't they think of that as soon as they hired De Niro and Murphy?
Rated PG-13 for action violence, language, and some drug content.